How Food Affects Mood (Part 1)

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen (aka, the Savvy Psychologist) joins Nutrition Diva for a series on how food affects our moods. This week, can eating carbs give you a boost? How dangerous is it to "self-medicate" with food?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #282

Today we have a very special guest. Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, host of the popular Savvy Psychologist podcast, joins me for the first of a series of conversations about the complex relationship between food and mood. .


Are You Self-Medicating with Food?

Nutrition Diva: Let’s dive right in! We all know that hunger isn’t the only reason we eat. Sometimes we eat out of boredom or habit or because we’re presented with something really yummy.  But sometimes people talk about "self-medicating” with food. What does that mean to you as a psychologist? 

See also: Why We Overeat 


Savvy Psychologist: It depends—one of my tenets is that most human behaviors exist on a spectrum: In moderation, it’s not a problem but when taken to extremes, it might be. Using food to soothe yourself or as a pick-me-up is no exception. Pleasurable foods can be soothing when we feel down.

For example, what romantic break up would be complete without drowning your sorrows in some ice cream while wearing pajamas and watching old movies? The problem arises if ice cream is the only coping method for dealing with the weeks following the break up, if it numbs you from feeling your feelings, or if it costs you more than it buys you (if you eat yourself sick or feel worse afterwards—like wracked with guilt or out of control).

Self-medication, done in a healthy way, is called coping.  

Again, it’s a spectrum. Self-medication, done in a healthy way, is called coping.  Unhealthy self-medication at the far end of the spectrum—using food as a short term solution that costs you in the long term—is where we can rightfully start to worry. A glass of wine after one hard day is not a problem. A glass of wine every time you feel a negative emotion is a problem.

See also: Is Drinking Alcohol Good For You?


ND: “Self-medication, done in a healthy way, is called coping.” I love that definition! I guess it’s about making sure that the things we do to take care of ourselves aren’t doing any harm—or creating more problems than they solve. But on that same topic of using food to make us feel better, some popular authors suggest that you can improve your mood with dietary manipulations, such as eating more carbs or eating carbs at night. Is there any good research to support this approach?


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.